Prison staff failed to help suicidal inmate, inquest hears

An inquest into the death of an aboriginal prisoner heard Tuesday that corrections officials were aware of his history of depression and suicide attempts, but he never got the help he needed.
The Blackwind inquest is being held at the town hall building in Port Hope, Ont. ((Maureen Brosnahan/CBC))

An inquest into the death of an aboriginal prisoner heard Tuesday that corrections officials were aware of his history of depression and suicide attempts, but he never got the help he needed.

Martin Blackwind, 52, died in 2006 after slashing his arm in a prison cell at Warkworth penitentiary in eastern Ontario.

A jury of three women and two men in Port Hope, Ont., is hearing testimony about the events leading to his death.

Blackwind, from Sioux Valley First Nation in Manitoba, had a troubled past, including several suicide attempts. He was serving a 17-year-sentence for manslaughter for the beating death of his common-law wife, Kathleen Hart.

Brian Dearnley, former chair of Warkworth's inmate committee, testified he knew Blackwind as a quiet, shy man.

"Martin was not a troublemaker," he said.

Dearnley met with Blackwind a few days before his death after being told by prison staff that he was having trouble.

"I knew he wasn't all there, just talking to him," he told the inquest. "He wasn't himself, he was agitated, he was nervous."

Dearnley also asked the vice-chair of the inmate committee, Rick Kelmat, to meet with Blackwind for a further assessment. Then Kelmat and Dearnley went to see the correctional supervisor in charge of the prison.

"We said we were concerned for Martin's health and his well-being and that something should be done," Dearnley said. He wanted Blackwind moved to segregation — something he does not normally recommend — because he was afraid he would hurt himself.

"He was talking erratically. … He was sweating and I knew something was going to happen to him," Dearnley said.

Brian Dearnley, the former inmate chair at Warkworth, is brought to testify at the Blackwind inquest. He is using a wheelchair because of surgery on his knee. ((Maureen Brosnahan/CBC))

The segregation unit at Warkworth has two cells with cameras that are often used for suicide watch. Prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.

"I don't ever recommend a guy go to seg unless for his own safety," Dearnley told the inquest. "I used to fight to get guys out of seg."

Blackwind was moved to a unit for aboriginal inmates instead of segregation, making Dearnley think prison staff were "underplaying" the situation, he said.

Earlier in the inquest, Phil Gotlieb, a correctional supervisor, testified the segregation cells were all full. Gotlieb also testified that Blackwind told him he wasn't planning on hurting himself and that he didn't want to go to segregation.

Dearnley said this didn't surprise him.

"He was confused. I didn't think he had the faculties to make that decision."

A Correctional Service assessment identified Blackwind's alcoholism and depression and referred him to the psychology department. But he never met with psychology staff at Warkworth after transferring there in 2000, although he did meet with the prison psychiatrist, who worked with the medical department.

During eight days of testimony, the jury heard from 23 witnesses, including guards, correctional supervisors, prison staff and managers, medical and forensic experts, a forensic psychiatrist and an aboriginal elder, as well as experts on aboriginal people and the justice system.

Jurors have to pore over three dozen exhibits, including the hobby craft knife that Blackwind used to cut himself and a bloody block of wood and shoelace found under his body in the cell.

Guards testified they did not try to stop the bleeding because they couldn't find the wound, which was inside the crook of his left arm.

The blood-stained block of wood and laces found under Blackwind in his cell. It was suggested at the inquest he may have tried to stop his own bleeding by trying to use the laces as a tourniquet and the wood to put pressure on the wound. ((Maureen Brosnahan/CBC))

Lawyers for the guards, the guards union, the Correctional Service of Canada, the Aboriginal Legal Service of Toronto and the coroner all addressed the jury.

All but the lawyer for the Correctional Service offered improvements the jury could recommend, such as better staffing at the prison, a return to round-the-clock health care, more psychologists, more training for staff and better information-sharing.

Dr. Peter Clark, the coroner, urged the jurors to consider making recommendations that would prevent future deaths. The purpose of the inquest is to "speak for the dead," he said in his charge Tuesday afternoon.

The jury is expected to hand down its recommendations on Wednesday.

With files from Maureen Brosnahan